Between August 2001 and April 2003, Borderline: The Comics Magazine was a free monthly PDF format magazine, edited by Phil Hall, ably assisted by a motley crew of knowledgeable comic-heads such as Mike Kidson, Martin Shipp, Andy Winter, Andrew Cheverton, Danny Black, Mike Sivier and my good self, in the News Features Editor role. Starting from nothing, with a production budget of tuppence, Borderline was, if anything too far ahead of the curve, and while the readership reached a peak of over 141,000, racked up a National Comics Award for Best Comics Magazine or Website in 2002, at the time we found it impossible to translate that into a viable business model.
The rise and fall of Borderline would make for an entire blog of its own (maybe even a major motion picture…), but I’m bringing it up now because I want to get some of the features I did for it back out into the world. If nothing else, they should prove to be interesting cultural artifacts of an earlier time, starting with this feature from Borderline #1 in August 2001.
Re-reading it, I’m particularly amused by the tone, heaping praise on M. Night Shyamalan, then on only his second movie, and look what’s happened to his career since then… In only nine years, his films have become more and more derided, and it seems that he has been forced to abandon his writer/director mantle to direct a work for hire adaptation of animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Between films, the rumour mill starts up about a potential sequel for Unbreakable, but I’m not sure if I want the director of The Lady in the Water and The Happening to go back to meddle with his earlier success. Unless of course, it sparks a creative resurgence, of course.
Also interesting to think that back when I wrote this original piece, Tim Burton’s Batman was still the blueprint for the Dark Knight Detective on celluloid, and yet nowadays, it seems like Batman has been Christopher Nolan’s property forever.
In future Borderline Blogs, I’ll no doubt get into the ups and downs a bit, reproduce some of the interviews I did across the twenty issues we put out, and I’m thinking of doing a Where Are They Now feature on Borderline alumni, to catch up on some old friends and see what they’re up to these days. As a design exercise, I had a go at refreshing the Borderline logo and cover dress, as though it had returned. And for a few days, there was a chance that it might, but then cooler heads prevailed. Here’s to what might have been!
THE MOST IMPORTANT COMICS FILM EVER?
Could a Bruce Willis movie possibly change the general public’s attitude towards comicbooks? Jay Eales investigates…
THE most important film, as far as the superhero genre in particular is concerned, was not made in 1989. Neither was it an adaptation of an existing work, though some similarity with realistic worldview superhero comics can be identified. The film in question was not accompanied by the rolling out of a merchandising bandwagon. It stars A-list talent in Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, and manages to avoid the usual pitfalls of the genre. You can lay responsibility for that squarely at the feet of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, whose previous film, The Sixth Sense, breathed fresh life into the ghost story. He then brought the sensibilities of that film to bear on Unbreakable; slowly pacing, with the emphasis firmly placed on dialogue and characterisation rather than leaping from set-piece to set-piece. The concept is simple enough: a man discovers that he is a superhero. Nothing too earth shattering there, you might think, but Shyamalan chooses to present his story without a hint of camp, Adam West-style antics, or even the Goth fairy tale posturing of Tim Burton’s reinvention of the Dark Knight in Batman.
REAL LIFE DOESN’T FIT INTO LITTLE BOXES THAT WERE DRAWN FOR IT
The film opens and closes with onscreen captions, and while I won’t spoil the ending for you it should be acknowledged that this big Hollywood production dares to have these words as the first things the audience sees: “There are 35 pages and 124 illustrations in the average comic book. A single issue ranges in price from $1.00 to over $140,000. 172,000 comics are sold in the U.S. every day. Over 62,780,000 each year. The average comic collector owns 3,312 comics and will spend approximately 1 year of his or her life reading them.”
THERE IS A SOLE SURVIVOR, AND HE IS MIRACULOUSLY UNHARMED
Unbreakable is the story of two flawed men – one with unbreakable bones, one who suffers from the disease osteogenesis imperfecta, which causes his bones to shatter at the least impact – and how their lives intersect. There are no comic book absolutes of good and evil here, just all the hues in between. In fact, part of Shyamalan’s style is the clever use of colour in his movies. In The Sixth Sense, the colour red was used as an indicator of supernatural interference. In Unbreakable, as Bruce Willis’ character, David Dunn, starts to accept the possibility that he may be more than mortal, the people he interacts with wear more primary colours than others in the film. As Elijah Price, Samuel L Jackson plays the owner of an art gallery, specialising in comic art, giving Shyamalan (and comic collector Jackson) a mouthpiece with which to elevate the medium of comics from the preconception of it as a thing of childhood value alone.
In Shyamalan’s own words, “This is normally the first act of a movie, this whole movie. And I’m going to make an entire movie about a guy realising he’s a superhero.” This was not his initial plan, however. “We started out with a very traditional movie, where the first act was him realising his powers, second act was him fighting good and bad, and in the third act he’s fighting the ultimate villain,” but Shyamalan found himself unable to connect with the character of David Dunn as he would have been in acts two and three, in the way he did with him in the act one. Great pains were taken to maintain an air of hyper-realism in the film – it is not quite believable, and yet the emotional reactions seem honest, and allow a suspension of disbelief. No spandex costume for this superhero; Dunn wears the waterproof hooded poncho from his day job as a security guard at a Philadelphia sports stadium, a clever real world analogy of the cape and cowl of more outlandish comic book heroes such as The Spectre.
DO YOU KNOW WHAT THE SCARIEST THING IS? TO NOT KNOW YOUR PLACE IN THIS WORLD
While Unbreakable has not eclipsed Shyamalan’s biggest hit, The Sixth Sense, the film has performed successfully. It opened well, but did not display the extraordinary staying power of the previous film, which has now racked up more than $160 million. Unbreakable’s US box office takings to date are estimated at $95 million. In its recent release for rental video and DVD, it took $17.2 million in its opening week and topped VideoScan’s First Alert DVD sales chart for the week ending July 1st, knocking Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from the top spot. Not bad for a superhero movie that dared to be different, eh?
UNBREAKABLE ON DVD
The DVD Region 1 release of Unbreakable contains the usual complement of special features that fans of the format have come to expect, but there are two items of particular note to comics fans. One is two collectible illustrations by artist Alex Ross, who was involved in the production from an early stage; the other, more importantly, is a twenty-minute documentary entitled Comic Books and Superheroes. It features contributions from a host of famous comic creators and Samuel L Jackson, who reveals his passion for comics and reminisces about growing up with Archie and Veronica and collecting Superman comics. He also reveals his technique for encouraging friends to get into the hobby: “If I had someone that didn’t know a lot about comics, I would take them into the comic book store, and depending on their sensibilities, I would give them all the Frank Miller I could find.”
Other participants in the documentary include Will Eisner, Scott McCloud, Alex Ross, Trina Robbins, Denny O’Neil, Frank Miller, Michael Chabon and Dave Gibbons, talking about the medium they work in, and how the superhero genre came to dominate it. Images are drawn from Sin City, Go Girl! and The Spirit, with art design by Alex Ross. Will Eisner goes into detail about how the Spirit came into being, and how he developed a technique for using panel layouts in order to get around pacing problems: “Panels, I learned, became part of the vocabulary, the punctuation. They affect the rate of reading; they affect the psychological approach that you take to the story. They can convey claustrophobia [and] they can convey openness.” Frank Miller elaborates, “I’m mad about the idea of closure […] how much the eye can do with how little information, which I think is the entire science of comic books. I mean, you only get one image out of a potential thousand as you read a comic book. You’re creating so many between those panels, it’s wonderful!”
The documentary ranges from the early days of comics and the contribution of Jewish immigrants and their children to the melting pot of superheroes, to how in the Eighties, with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns and their ilk, superheroes began to get darker and grittier, diminishing the heroic archetype. Michael (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) Chabon describes the Man of Steel thus: “It’s very easy to look at the Superman story as being at least in part the story of an immigrant; an immigrant from another world. And of course, Siegel and Shuster, these were two sons of immigrants.” Trina Robbins adds: “It seems that the majority of them grew up in New York, grew up in either the slums or at least working class neighbourhoods. These kids lived in apartment buildings – they didn’t live in single family dwellings in the suburbs. […] They were brought up on the American Dream.” Dave Gibbons, on the subject of Watchmen’s genesis, says: “Supposing superheroes really existed […] and there was a real Superman, for instance. What would he be like? When you extrapolate from that, you realise that the people that were given superpowers, or who decided to fight crime, might do it for much more human reasons than just this kind of abstract ‘I have been gifted with powers, so I must save the world!’” Frank Miller again: “I don’t need a character to be able to fly […] to be heroic to me. There ain’t that much difference between a cape and a trenchcoat anyway.” The documentary packs a lot into its twenty minutes, and incredibly, apart from the briefest of comments, doesn’t refer to the movie at all. This is no fluff piece. I take great heart in knowing that film-makers like Shyamalan are out there, acting as ambassadors for the comics medium, bringing it into thousands of homes that might otherwise remain ignorant of comics outside of Lois and Clark, or the last Batman or X-Men summer blockbuster. May this be seen as a blueprint for future film-makers: superhero movies don’t have to be made with one eye on a franchise and the other on the CGI special effects budget. [From Borderline #1: August 2001]